Living As If… in the Age of COVID-19

Living with CovidNo doubt about it, Windsor-Essex is enduring a difficult, even unprecedented situation right now. Unemployment is high, and by many measures we’ve been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other region in Ontario – maybe any other region in Canada.

Can Windsor-Essex’s economy recover? Can our region shake off this pandemic and emerge thriving and bustling with fully realized potential?

There is an answer. Let me start with a story cribbed from William James. Imagine a trainload of passengers way back in the 1890s. The train is invaded by three bandits who declare they’re going to rob and murder everyone onboard. Each passenger cowers and says a prayer, preparing themselves for death. After all, surely, they don’t stand a chance. The bandits have guns and the passengers have … suitcases. Any attempt to stop them is doomed to failure.

Are they right? Is their belief that they can’t subdue the bandits true?

In this moment, their belief isn’t true. It isn’t false, either.

Here’s why. If the passengers believe they can’t subdue the bandits, they’ll submit, and the bandits will win. In that case, yes, their belief that they can’t subdue the robbers will become true. It’s true because their lack of action makes it true.

But if even one person believes they can subdue the bandits – and then acts as if the belief is true, the situation changes. The action makes all the difference. The action creates the possibility that the belief is false.

But the belief could still be true as well, if that one person who rises up is killed by the bandits. So, what else needs to happen? Simple: others need to help. After all, there are only three bandits and a whole trainload of passengers.

But what are the odds that if one person takes a stand, others will join in to help subdue the bandits? The odds are actually pretty good.

You see, on the one hand we have a force called distributed responsibility – the more people you have responsible for something, the less likely any of those people will do it. So a train full of 100 passengers is less likely to rise up against the bandits than a train with just 5 passengers. When responsibility is distributed among so many people, no one feels its weight on their shoulders. In many of these cases, no one acts.

But on the other hand, we have the bystander effect: it only takes one person to act as if, one person to step up and intervene, and that breaks the spell.

That leader provides a model for the others, who become more likely to help. The leader’s example makes others believe they can succeed, so success becomes a real possibility. All you need is one person willing to lead the way, and then, when others join, to collaborate with them to stop something terrible from happening and, instead, create something good.

And here’s the kicker: any of us, even all of us, can be leaders in just this way.
Many great thinkers from across all cultures advise us to focus only on what is in our power to control. William James put it a little differently: “Do not concern yourself with things that are beyond your control; concentrate on those things that are under your control”.

It’s tempting to use this as an excuse to let ourselves off the hook. But try to be honest with ourselves. What, exactly, is in our control? What can we at least influence? All of us have far more power and influence than we realize – especially when we pool our efforts. It’s up to us to act.

Remember those questions I asked at the beginning: Can Windsor-Essex’s economy recover? Can our region shake off this pandemic and emerge thriving and bustling with fully realized potential?

The answer to both of those questions is yes – if we act to make it so. We need to be smart about how we act. Above all, we need to follow proper safety precautions – wearing masks in all public places, maintaining social distancing, washing our hand frequently, and so forth – and wait for our governments to give us the green light.

Then what? Are we going to hide in our homes waiting for Windsor-Essex to crumble? Of course not. We’re going to use our safety precautions wisely and get the city back on its feet, by being customers, patrons, audience members, creators, innovators – we’re going to contribute in all the ways that we can to setting Windsor-Essex on its feet and preparing it for an even brighter future. We can do that, all of us, because we’re leaders. If we decide we are and act accordingly.

We will keep local businesses alive, from the factories to the restaurants, from the hair salons to the pubs, from the arts studios to the theatres. Every dollar we spend on a local business could become a dollar spent on another local business – paying local wages, buying local supplies, even paying local taxes.

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: I’m going to go out with my mask on, keeping a safe distance away from others. I’m going to patronize locally-owned businesses that are following government safety procedures, and tell other people about them, so they know to patronize those businesses as well. I’m going to make a note of businesses that aren’t doing their part to keep people safe, and discourage others from patronizing them. And when my company, Post Productions, reopens the Shadowbox Theatre as soon as the government says we can, I’m going to do everything in my power to make it as comfortable and safe for our patrons as possible. They deserve nothing less.
We can do this if we help each other, and we can help each other if we truly believe that we will succeed. We will, if we act on that belief – and through our leadership, encourage others to do the same.

So, no, we aren’t helpless against COVID-19. There’s a lot we can do to cut the virus’ power short. And that means we can rebuild and even grow Windsor-Essex’s economy. It’s as simple as making good choices and acting as if we can work together to lift Windsor-Essex out of this crisis — not only as a community, but as a team. We will do it because we care about ourselves, our friends and families and neighbours, about the whole Windsor-Essex community. We stand together because we believe we can. And we’re right.

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